What Is a Rule Engine? 5 Ways to Simplify Your Work

By: Ben Baldwin

October 12, 2021

what is a rule engine

What is a rule engine? And how can you use it to your advantage?

Simply put, a rule engine is a set of programmable production rules that are comprised of a defined condition and a subsequent appropriate reaction. In other words, it is a powerful workflow engine that allows companies to automate processes.

Rules have been a mainstay within every industry, such as in the medical and robotics industry. Workers are trained to know which actions to take in various situations and conditions. But what if we could enable cyber-physical systems to perform specific autonomous actions based on the current conditions and real-time data?

This is what has been achieved with the power of rule engines.

With this in mind, let’s take a deep dive into what a rule engine is and how to use it to your advantage.

So What is a Rule Engine Exactly?

As we stated before, a rule engine consists of a condition and an action. As conditions occur, such as direct inputs from an operator or real-time data capturing, the rule engine will know how to react based on the predefined rules in the engine.

I, Robot

In its simplest form, a rule engine is a programmable logic that functions like modern artificial intelligence. Once the logic is in place, the program autonomously performs the correct actions based on the current conditions.

A simple and fun way to understand rule engines is to look at science fiction writer Issac Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics, popularly featured in the novel and motion picture I, Robot.

  • First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Now, hopefully, you won’t have to program your rule engine with this specific set of rules. But when looking at “what is a rule engine?”, this helps us understand the logic behind this tool. Once reading the situation, the system knows what actions it should and should not do.

You can have rules that combine to create an intelligent framework, like in the example above, or the rules can stand alone as separate conditions like in the inventory example below.

  • If bolt #YZ589 inventory drops below 1000 units, then order 500 more units;
  • If bolt #YZ589 inventory drops below 500 units, place high priority assemblies higher in the queue and notify inventory management;
  • If bolt #YZ589 cannot be ordered, notify the inventory management team.

Here we have a very simple set of rules that enable people to focus on other duties while your work instructions software performs the following tasks in the background:

  • Autonomously order parts.
  • React to production needs and change production schedule if necessary.
  • Notify the appropriate personnel with a pre-written email outlining the issue.

Before using rule engines, people would have to follow these rules manually. They would watch the conditions manifest and then perform the correct responsive actions. But with a rule engine in place, this all becomes automated. Based on real-time monitoring and user inputs, your rule engine knows the next logical step and your workers save valuable time.

How a Rule Engine Works

More often than not, a rule engine will run on a simple IF-THEN formula:

If condition X occurs, then implement action Y

The condition (IF) can be determined through direct operator input or real-time data retrieval. Once the condition has been spotted, the rules will determine what action is needed (THEN). This is the key characteristic of “what is a rule engine”.

Your rule engine can have as few or as many rules as you need. It all depends on how many conditions or IFs occur in your operation. You could have a rule engine that is only specific to one situation or you can have a rule engine that has multiple rules for more complex situations.

Either way, no matter how many IFs and THENs your process may have, your rule engine is always capable of performing the correct action for every condition and rule you give it.

How Do You Use a Rule Engine? 5 Examples with VKS

So what is a rule engine and how do you use it?

Within VKS Pro and Enterprise, the rule engine is a programmable logic that lets you automate specific actions based on the inputs of the operator or other systems. As workers and systems input measurements, times, part numbers, and other data, VKS guides employees with accurate and specific directions while performing actions in the background.

Adding to this, VKS communicates with other systems and people based on the current conditions, effectively informing all necessary components when needed.

autonomous rule engine

Let’s explore how this works and how you can use the rule engine to your advantage.

1. Quality Inspections & Conformance

Imagine your company manufactures air conditioning units. As each unit is being assembled, your operators and the work instruction software are gathering quality and process data.

As one of your employees is assembling a small electrical box, they realize that the drilled holes do not have the right spacing. At this point in the process, VKS is asking the operator to confirm that all parts are up to spec. The operator indicates no in the smart form and the rule engine performs the following steps autonomously:

  • Displays a pre-written message telling the user to "Put the unit in the red bin, quality is on its way.".
  • Opens a non-conformance form for the user to fill in.
  • Sends a pre-written email to the quality department, notifying them of the non-conformance issue.
  • Brings the user back to step 1 to begin a new assembly.

Each of these 4 factors are actions that need to be taken when there is a non-conformance or quality error condition. This rule engine application gives your operators an easy method to relay issues to the team while also enabling them to continue working.

2. Navigate Steps with Dynamic Work Instructions

In a previous article, Dynamic Work Instructions & Why Do You Need Them?, we went through the limitless possibilities of implementing various product variations within one work instruction.

This makes Assemble-to-Order and other mixed model productions much more efficient and easy on the shop floor. By only selecting a few options within the Smart Forms, operators can progress to the correct assembly information. This capability is powered by the rule engine.

As operators input conditions (i.e. the customer specifications), VKS directs them to the appropriate steps within the process. Simply input the conditions and VKS follows the rules to present the appropriate instructions.

dynamic work instructions and rule engine

3. Automate Steps for New Employees

With a guidebook geared towards employees with less experience, you can program a rule engine that serves to help users by giving new users more detail and instruction.

Let’s imagine you run a toy car factory making the latest and greatest die-cast cars. You have a bunch of new trainees that are almost ready to work on their own but they are unable to make complex decisions just yet.

In this case, you add a rule engine into their guidebooks. As certain decisions need to be made, the new operators can input the current conditions and their work instructions will guide them to the appropriate actions. Essentially, the rule engine lets you automate all manual decisions, enabling the operator to advance and create value with less training. They only need to follow the steps and answer questions.

So what this rule engine does is not only serve to automate decision-making for new employees but also helps train them with intelligent logic.

4. Ensure Health and Safety

Here at VKS, in light of the COVID-19, we have leveraged our program’s rule engine to ensure health and safety guidelines are being followed. This has enabled us to quickly adapt to new measures and stay ahead of the pandemic. When entering the building, employees are prompted to scan their ID badge and answer the two following questions:

  • Have you experienced symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste, or a sore throat?
  • Have you been in contact with someone that has COVID-19?

If answering no to both questions, the system will show a message saying to have a great day. If answering yes to either of these questions, the user will be prompted with instructions of what to do next while an automated email is sent to HR. The system will also ask users to scan their card again, verifying that they have understood the instructions.

The IF-THEN formula looks something like this:

If the user inputs no to both questions 1 and 2, then display message 1. If the user inputs yes to either question 1 or 2, then display instruction 2 and send an automated email to the HR representative.

5. Autonomously Assign Work Orders

For our final example, let’s say you run a locomotive and railcar maintenance facility. You’ve had a number of railcars enter your tracks and now is the time to perform a multi-point inspection on the entire train. So two employees take a rugged tablet and begin to perform the inspection with VKS Enterprise.

As the workers inspect the railcars, they measure the brake pistons, check for any flat spots on the wheels, and see if any railcars will need to be moved off track to be overhauled. Based on the data the two inspectors markdown, VKS Enterprise can perform the following actions:

  • Send an automated message to maintenance with the specific details including railcar numbers, defective components, part numbers, etc.
  • Automatically generate a work order in the queue with detailed work instructions that match the job being performed and the railcar that needs work.

The rule engine enables inspectors to focus on their job at the moment while VKS manages and prepares the subsequent steps that need to be taken later in the day or week.

Simplify Your Work With The VKS Rule Engine

simplify your work

By reading the current data or receiving operator inputs, rule engines are a versatile tool. As we have seen in the 5 examples above, your rule engine is augmentable to your specific needs and work conditions.

So what is a rule engine and what can it do for you? A rule engine is a programmable logic that enables you to simplify and automate certain production actions. Companies that take advantage of this innovative tool stand to simplify the work of their employees while also ensuring that the proper actions are always taken. Simplify your work and achieve new standards of automation, workforce enhancement, and efficient manufacturing!

Curious to learn More? See what VKS Pro and Enterprise can do for your organization!

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